Various Artists: ‘Sir J.J. Special’ reviewed

❉ Doctor Bird Records takes us back in time to the ska and rocksteady era of 1966-’68. 

Karl ‘Sir J.J.’ Johnson was one of the most important and prolific producers in Jamaican music during its 1960s evolution. From his base in Orange Street, Juke Box shop proprietor Johnson turned his hand to record production, focusing on a small roster of popular artists. The 45s were issued on his Sir J.J. label.

He only released one full long player, entitled Reggae Power, in 1968. It was, in its original form, a compilation of material from his most successful artists. However, upon its UK release on Trojan, the album track list was hijacked somewhat to capitalize on the popularity of The Ethiopians, with the bulk of the tracks by the band. Both Reggae Power albums comprised of sounds using a new formula fusing ska and rock steady, initially called ‘blue beat’. Both were also recently reissued as collections by Doctor Bird Records, a division of Cherry Red Records specialising in vintage Jamaican sounds licensed from the legendary catalogue of Trojan Records.

Now, hot on their heels, Doctor Bird have set their time machine back a couple more years. And if you’ve done your homework, you will realize this encompasses the late ska, and rock steady era of 1966-68. The collections (now three in number) make a complete historical document, a kind of encyclopaedia of rare cuts, and take the listener through a musical journey of the streets of Kingston during this period. There is much to check out. (For a more detailed account of the life and times of Karl ‘J.J’ Johnson, take a look at our review of Reggae Power.)

The first disc is entitled Copasetic Sounds 1966-67. It features many rare tracks, starting with ska and heading into rock steady as it progresses.

The opening cut has a great story attached to it… During 1966, Lee Perry was given the boot by Coxson Dodd from Studio One, where he’d been working as an engineer. As a parting ‘gift’, Lee ‘King’ Perry (as he was known at the time) launched a scathing attack on his previous employer with his tune, Give Me Justice. Perry had the audacity to record this pulsating ska treat at Studio One while Dodd was absent. Perry’s second and final cut on the disc, The Wood Man, features sharp piano and has a almost wicked, languid characteristic typical of the man’s individuality. Of course, the ‘Scratch’ moniker came later on as his production abilities really took off.

The Fugitives, a vocal duo, have four tracks on disc one. The thumping ska of I Need Your Love (So Bad) is the real standout. Not the Fleetwood Mac tune of the same name, incidentally. Never Go Away is another pulsating number. The Fugitives’ vocals have a charmingly unique quality, not being afraid of mixing up a deep, almost doo-wop influence in the middle of a full-on ska workout, as on Baby Why.

The vintage production sonic is always a joy. Full, in your face and vibrant. Many of these recordings, such as the final cut from The Fugitives, People of Today, were most probably recorded at the Treasure Isle studios – courtesy of producer Duke Reid, of course. His house band Tony McCook and the Supersonics provide the backing, see. McCook being a member of the infamous Skatalites

Studio One was the studio where The Uniques recorded another belting slab of ska, Evil Love. The Uniques featured a young Roy Shirley on vocals, who went on to fame as a solo artist.

Speaking of solo artists, one of J.J.’s most utilized singers was the irrepressible Carl Dawkins. His gritty delivery was always fantastic, and like Shirley, is also heavily featured on Reggae Power. He has no less than seven tracks on disc one, the highlight being the sharp sound of Running Shoes. Dawkins invariably sang alone, with no backing vocals, which suited his soulful voice. He dominated recordings, see. He was just nineteen when J.J. took him on and his breakthrough hit, Baby I Love You is included here. As is the wonderful Hard Time, which has a beautifully rolling rock steady rhythm. The determined delivery to the lyric on I Won’t Give In is also worth shouting up. All are in the rock steady style. Impressive.

The Rulers are a quintessential vocal duo of the rock steady era. The hypnotic flow of Don’t Be Rude and the rising bounce and harmony of Copasetic win points for their titles alone. Be Good shows an obvious American R & B influence but it is the inclusion of Wrong Emboyo which many will recognize. The Clash of course, famously covered the tune on London Calling.

Elsewhere on the first disc The Vibrators’ I’m Depending On You is a rock steady gem, quarried from Sir J.J.’s rock face. The Viceroys’ threesome of Man Free, Innocent Man and Nosey People have unique, fun and wonderful backing vocals. They are especially rare cuts, with no information at hand to hint where they were recorded. Clever money would be put on Treasure Isle, Studio One or Joe Gibbs studios. The Inspirations’ super slow Dangerous Tool is a standout, and is an example of J.J.’s tendency to slow down the beat beyond the ‘norm’, something he carried into the blue beat and reggae era, even as Jamaican rhythms sped up once again.

Three instrumentals, all featuring J.J.’s go-to house band the Carib Beats, are included. The trumpet of Raymond Harper dominates Calling Soul and the sax of Val Bennett does the same on J.J. Special. Brass legend Bennett blew his tenor sax so dramatically on The Upsetters Return of Django, incidentally. The uber-rare Adams Family Rock Steady, also known as Munster’s Ska, is a ‘version’ of the Adams Family TV theme. In truth it is only the opening riff, together with the hand clicks, with the rest being slow rock steady exercise.

Disc two, Fun Galore 1967-68, is pure rock steady. Its title comes from The Kingstonians 45 of the same name, which is included here. The Kingstonians are the most prevalent act featured, and kick off things with the classic Winey Winey. After The Ethiopians, the much loved band were J.J.’s highest profile group and have no less than ten numbers on this disc. Jackie Bernard’s lead vocal set them apart from so many other vocal groups. Monster rock steady island hits Crime Don’t Pay and Put Down The Fire are here, plus the seasonal Merry Christmas which sure as hell beats anything Slade ever mustered. Check out Bernard’s lead vocals on Put Down The Fire and False Witness – masculine and magnificent. The Kingstonians recorded much of their early output for J.J., and went on to record for Derrick Harriott (including Sufferer) as the new ‘reggae’ style became popular from ‘68 onwards.

The Soul Leaders contribute two brilliant numbers. A version of the soul classic Beauty Is Only Skin Deep is wonderfully sung with a telling horn contribution. The vocals, courtesy of Jimmy London (aka Trevor Shaw) and Billy Dyce (aka Ransford White), are among the finest on this collection, and under their aliases, the duo make up The Inspirations. Their tune Dangerous Tool was is on disc one. They also do a slow version of the Beatles/ Motown classic (I Need) Money.

The Rulers’ Let My People Go has a sombre, slow march feel that carries its plea for liberty perfectly. Another two numbers by the group appear on disc two, with Be Mine especially being full of rock steady charm.

The West Indians, like so many here, began their recording work with J.J. Eric Donaldson led the vocal trio, and the simple and sensitive I Mean It shows what the group, and particularly Donaldson, were capable of. Indeed, comparisons with Desmond Dekker and the Aces were prominent, and show on the solid Hokey Pokey. Right On Time is a belter, and despite selling well it didn’t break through into overseas territories. The group were re-branded ‘The Kilowatts’ as rock steady began to become popular worldwide and they recorded do-overs of Sam Cooke classics (What A) Wonderful World and Bring It On Home. Interestingly, both cuts feature the addition of strings which was beginning to aid the accessibility of Jamaican music to the overseas pop charts. A third single, Slot Machine, has a cheesy dialogue intro which is highly effective, drawing the listener in to the story about to be told. The Kilowatts, like The West Indians, did not achieve the elusive pop chart entry in the UK or the United States. However, Donaldson did eventually get deserved superstar status with Cherry Oh Baby.

Among the other cuts well worth mentioning is Primo and Hopeton’s Your Safe Keep. It has a near perfect rock steady beat, with raw, vintage production. Incidentally, Hopeton Lewis, the leader of the duo, won the Jamaica Song Festival in 1970 with an early version of Boom Sha-Ka-La-Ka.

The only instrumental is Soul Food, by Lyn Taiti and The Jets, a rock steady workout with spoken instrumentation introductions. And it’s fun!

1966-68 was a fantastic time in music, especially Jamaican music. Things were evolving, the sound of the studios was vibrant, and legendary artists, musicians and producers were being forged. Karl ‘J.J.’ Johnson was certainly among them, and his abundant output can only be admired.

This collection finishes Karl ‘J.J.’ Johnson’s musical walk through Kingston. But it does much more than that. Anyone inspired by regular rock steady (or Ska) compilations should get hold of this collection. It digs deeper and unearths cuts of high quality, that match and often exceed those familiar classics we all know and love.

‘Sir J.J. Special: J.J. Johnson’s Ska and Rock Productions 1966-1968′ (2CD, DBCDD064) was released 11 September 2020 by Doctor Bird/Cherry Red Records, RRP £11.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.

❉ Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

❉ Paul Matts is a writer from Leicester, England. His first novella, ‘Donny Jackal’, a kitchen-sink coming of age drama set in English punk rock suburbia in 1978, is out now both in paperback and as an E-book. His fiction has been featured in Punk Noir Magazine, Brit Grit Alley and Unlawful Acts. Paul also writes articles on music, in particular on the punk and new wave movement, and is a regular contributor for We Are Cult, Punkglobe, Razur Cuts and Something Else magazines. See for more details, and to subscribe for updates.

Feature image: The Kingstonians.

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1 Comment

  1. Great post, but just a correction: It’s not accurate to say “Dawkins invariably sang alone, with no backing vocals.” The Wailers sang as Dawkins’ backup singers on several tracks, like “Picture on the Wall” and “Cloud Nine.”


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